by David Harris
JERUSALEM, July 12 (Xinhua) -- While the Israelis and Americans say they want an early launch of direct peace talks, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas made it clear on Saturday that the Palestinians will only enter face-to-face negotiations with Israel once progress has been made in the ongoing indirect parley.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is anxious to move to direct talks as soon as possible. He made the point clear when talking with the media during his trip to Washington last week.
Netanyahu fears that if he cannot shift into the direct phase by September 26, he may not be able to do so at all because of the complicated makeup of his government.
However, Abbas maintains he will not be pushed in a direction he does not want to go prior to seeing what he believes are real advances during the indirect stage. Analysts believe that domestic issues are what is holding both leaders back.
September 26 is the date on which Israel's self-declared, partial settlement freeze comes to an end. Netanyahu announced last November that there would be no building starts in the West Bank for 10 months.
Since then he publicly announced that the moratorium would not be renewed. He seemingly made that remark in order to pacify those within his hawkish coalition who oppose the freeze.
Should September 26 arrive without direct talks already in place and Netanyahu then states the moratorium will not be extended, the Palestinians will walk away from the peace process, with many analysts suggesting violence could well ensue.
On the other hand, if Netanyahu persuades the Palestinians to enter the direct phase of negotiations, he could well face a rebellion in the ranks of his coalition. However, he does have other political options available and his government could survive with the replacement of the more hawkish parties with the centrist and pro-negotiations Kadima party.
But all of this is secondary for Abbas, who, while understanding the problems Netanyahu faces at home, is far more concerned with the diplomatic process itself.
POINTS OF CONTENTION
It would appear from statements made by Netanyahu and Abbas that the two major hurdles at the moment relate to security and the future borders of a Palestinian state.
Netanyahu is of the opinion that the best way to deal with these core issues is by means of direct negotiations. Abbas on the other hand insists these matters should be dealt with in the indirect stage, which is being managed by former U.S. senator George Mitchell.
The appointment of both U.S. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Mitchell has spent the last two months brokering the indirect talks.
Part of the reason Abbas is slowing things down is that like Netanyahu, he too is concerned by events at home, numerous analysts have told Xinhua.
According to Gaza-based political science professor Naji Shurab, while Abbas wants direct talks to advance as swiftly and successfully as possible, he is also concerned about public opinion.
Polls and anecdotal evidence since Obama and Netanyahu came to power suggest that Palestinians are very wary of the process and fear that Abbas may be too weak to deliver a strong deal for the Palestinians.
He also faces strong opposition from Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic resistance movement, said Shurab. That means that Abbas has to show he is a strong leader and can gain concessions from Israel, perhaps with U.S. guarantees. If he fails to do so, political waverers will be tempted to shift their support from Abbas' Fatah party to Hamas.
"The position of Abbas is not strong. It's weak because of Palestinian fragmentation, so he wants some form of justification for going to direct talks," said Shurab, who teaches at Al-Azhar University.
In his opinion, Mitchell is likely to visit Abbas in the next few days to try to pressure him to agree to direct talks before the September deadline. That follows on from a telephone call Abbas received from Obama on Friday.
DIRECT VERSUS INDIRECT
Not everyone is that bothered by the format of the talks, however.
"What's more important is their content," Yariv Oppenheimer, secretary-general of Peace Now, an dovish Israeli organization, suggested on Sunday.
Oppenheimer believes that Netanyahu is happy to discuss the minutiae of the present moment "and not to advance to an agreement, " while Abbas "wants to reach a settlement and not to discuss what 's happening today or tomorrow."
Yet Netanyahu himself said before leaving the United States at the end of last week that if Abbas proves to be a serious partner for peace, the pair could attain a deal within 12 months.
His first destination on his peace mission is a date with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on Wednesday. Netanyahu is expected to update his Egyptian host on his talks with Obama. It will be the fifth time the pair has met this year. Israel believes Cairo can help deliver a peace deal.
From then on, much of Netanyahu's work will take place back at home. He has to try to persuade his current coalition to allow him to extend the settlement freeze. If, come the end of August, it becomes clear to him that is a mission impossible, he may well begin consultations with Kadima leader Tzipi Livni to see if she would be prepared to join his coalition and help save the peace process.
Livni is likely to lay down tough conditions, but at the end of the day she knows she will gain considerable political mileage by merely joining the coalition and potentially being perceived as Israel's political and diplomatic Messiah.